Harmonizing the melting pot

The Baltimore Sun

With no microphones for a sound check, Hari Prabhakar let his singers down to a basement corridor to rehearse.

Four bobbed their index fingers to the music, altos and sopranos harmonizing "hai, hai, hai, hai" -- a Hindi version of "yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah."

The members of Kranti practiced the new Bollywood song, "Salaam-E-Ishq" (A Tribute to Love). Then they tackled "Desi Back," a South Asian spoof on Justin Timberlake's "Sexy Back" that the female singers penned.

With a demo CD of Hindi pop and folk songs now recorded and a watershed concert staged this spring, the Indian vocal group at the Johns Hopkins University has joined the next wave in collegiate a cappella.

Though the noninstrumental choral art has enjoyed a resurgence on campuses for more than 15 years, the new groups emerging have a distinct ethnic flavor.

Like Kranti, numerous other ensembles that sing in Hindi, Hebrew, Chinese or various African languages are flourishing at racially diverse American universities.

"This is a very easy way to connect with a country that is so far away, especially for first-generation Indian-Americans who don't get to go back on a frequent basis," said Prabhakar, 21, a Dallas native who will be heading to London on a two-year Marshall Scholarship in public health. "It's a good way for us to share our leisure with others."

Hopkins and the University of Maryland, College Park both have Indian and Jewish a cappella groups, in addition to older ones that sing exclusively in English.

The ethnic clubs abound particularly on the campuses of Ivy League schools, fueled by changing student demographics.

The University of Pennsylvania counts PennYo (a Chinese ensemble) and Penn Masala (known as the first collegiate Hindi ensemble) among its 16 groups.

"You find them more at the schools that have already had a lot of a cappella," said Deke Sharon, founder of the California-based Contemporary A Cappella Society of America. "It's a new spin on what already existed."

Kranti was one of a dozen student acts to take the stage during a recent South Asian show at Hopkins.

The group's name -- which means "revolution" -- refers to a high-speed train that runs from Mumbai to New Delhi, dubbed the "August Kranti" in a nod to India's independence date.

It's an apt label for the musical experiment Prabhakar founded early in his freshman year.

But when 21 singers enlisted in the fall of 2003, coordinating schedules and voice parts for the new a cappella project became unwieldy.

Now whittled down to a core of eight members, the group had finally crystallized as Prabhakar prepared to hand the reins to fellow singers before he graduated Thursday."We've definitely grown much more professional over the past three years," Prabhakar said.

Kranti members have appeared locally at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. They hope to attend the national South Asian a cappella championship hosted by the University of California, Berkeley.

For their recent performance, Kranti members wore red crepe scarves over black tops and pants. Group members exuded confidence after successfully staging their own on-campus concert in late March with Raagapella, an all-male South Asian group from Stanford University.

The South Asian show was running on what the students called IST -- Indian Standard Time -- so they weren't surprised to find the event delayed 1 1/2 hours.

That gave Kranti singers time to rehearse and rehydrate themselves. The audio-visual guy scheduled to man the sound system never showed up. Prabhakar had long given up on a sound check by the time the microphones, rented at the last minute, arrived.

Meanwhile, there were steaming trays of curries for the nearly 200 guests gathered in Hopkins' Glass Pavilion. The heaps of nan bread and vegetable samosas soon disappeared. But the Kranti members wouldn't eat. The heavy oils and spices might strain their voices.

"It's very tempting," Rishi Mediratta said, eyeing the spread. "But we need to make sure our vocals are set. We'll be sure to have a plate later."

After acts of classical Indian, bhangra, Bollywood and world fusion dance -- and a short intermission -- finally at about 10 p.m., it was Kranti's turn to perform. Feedback screeched from the microphones as they set up. It took a moment to quiet the restless crowd.

Lead soloist Suraj Kabadi delivered their two songs in a bold tenor, and the audience cheered as he broke into the humorous remix of "Sexy Back."

We're bringing desi back.

Them ABCDs don't know how to act.

We're gonna show them how to do their maths,

And get them back onto the pre-med track.

American-Born Confused Desi (ABCD) mockingly referred to a South Asian-American youth struggling to find his cultural identity.

The pavilion's acoustics swallowed up Kranti's sound a bit, but it was soon behind them.

Kabadi and Mediratta, both 20, raced off to the buffet to scrape up the dregs. Free food is always a hot commodity at college events.

Then the two joined the other members, taking in the rest of the second act.

Because Prabhakar and performance director Sajeda Kermally graduated, Kranti will be down to six singers next year. They hope to hold auditions and expand.

Tapping into a large Indian graduate student community, especially those in lengthy doctoral programs, could prove fruitful, members said.

"It's going to be scary without him next year," musical director Jarel Gandhi said, tapping Prabhakar on the back. "We're definitely looking to recruit."


To hear samples of Kranti's songs, go to baltimoresun.com/kranti

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